Archive for Christmas

Christmas Has Only Just Begun!

Posted in Huffington Post, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 25, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

christmas-nativity

Christmas is much more than a one-day event.

While many people are familiar with the multi-week length of liturgical seasons throughout the Christian calendar — Ordinary Time, Advent and Lent, for example — few realize that Christmas is not just the celebration of the Nativity on Dec. 25 each year. Christmas is a full liturgical season that spans from Christmas Eve through Epiphany and ends, at least in the Roman Catholic Church, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 13 this year).

During the Christmas Season (sometimes called “Christmastide”) several other important feast days are celebrated, including the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 30 this year), the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Jan. 6 this year), and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In some churches, the celebration of the Christmas season can extend to as late as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2, which brings the season to a full 40 days! Each of these moments marks an important event in the Christian narrative and in the life of the church.

It is interesting that our consumer culture has seen an opportunity to extend Christmas with an exceptionally early start to the marketing of Christmas-related products, decorations, candy and music. However, this move — “beginning Christmas” as early as October — is both redundant and a reversal of the proper season. Christmas is already long enough, but it requires that we celebrate the patient yet attentive waiting of the Advent Season first.

For those who think Christmas is anticlimactic after the months of shopping, prepping and holiday anxiety, the real good news of Christmas extends beyond the birth of the Savior to include an appropriately joyful and reflective season dedicated to pondering these mysteries.

On Dec. 21, 1962 the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner wrote a guest editorial in the weekly paper, Die Zeit, in which he offered some reflections on the celebration of Christmas and the season that bears its name. After observing that Christmas can oftentimes feel like a disappointment after such cultural buildup, Rahner wrote:

Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.

He continued:

The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.

As Dec. 25 comes and goes, and the temptation to begin taking down the Christmas decorations quickly arises, consider the possibility of taking this year’s celebration of Christmas as an opportunity for something different.

Whereas in Christmases of the past, the day came and went amid gift giving, caroling and holiday parties, each rushed to be included before December’s end, perhaps this year might be the occasion to slow down and ponder more quietly that which stands in the background of this otherwise hectic time of year; what Rahner calls “the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.”

This year, especially in light of our all-too-painful awareness of violence and suffering in our world, time set aside to welcome the Prince of Peace is greatly needed.

May the remaining days of Christmas be a time of peace, prayer and joy, that what began on Christmas Eve may carry you through into a new calendar year more aware of the continued presence of the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Merry Christmas … still!

Photo: Stock

This reflection originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Christmas Eve 2012.

O Root of Jesse: The New Family of Christ

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Family_Portrait_O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

My maternal grandfather was a big fan of genealogical research. I remember being a boy and going with him and my grandmother to libraries all over Central New York where he would read through hundreds of old newspapers on large microfilm machines, looking at obituaries and news articles for information about this or that person or potential relation. When he finally got a computer, one of the first programs he installed was family tree software and my brothers, my cousins, and I would often serve as his tech-advisors. While I loved that he loved this hobby so much and I learned a lot from it, family trees and genealogical research never interested me in themselves. What I loved was spending time with my grandparents and, as my work and ministry in academia has since reflected back to me, I think I loved being in the library and the process of research.

Such has been the case with the genealogies at the beginning of both Matthews’s and Luke’s Gospels — I find them to be rather boring, at least on the surface. Their points, although emphasized differently, are understandable and I don’t begrudge the evangelical redactors for the inclusion of these family lines, but I think I’ve always been much more interested in what follows in the Gospels about Jesus’s family than what opens them respectively.

No offense to Micah and Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. But Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection establish a new family, one that transcends these earthly limitations and linear structures. And the new family of Christ helps to redefine how we understand the human family and the kinship of Christianity.

We begin to see this, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus has this famous encounter:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50).

The key is not the blood or biological or genealogical relationship, but the relationship established by doing the Will of God, which announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God.

We also get a glimpse of this new vision of family when Jesus, dying on the Cross, turns to his friend and to his mother and confirms another form of familiar relationship, a community of faith that stands for support, love, care, challenge, and embrace.

The Body of Christ, which is the church, is the new family of Christ, the lineage and inheritance of the Root of Jesse. It is not so much from whom you came as much as for whom you live! Are we part of this family tree? Do we do the will of God? Do we announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom?

Photo: Stock

The Advent or ‘Invention’ of Christ?

Posted in Advent, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

advent-wreathAdvent. It’s a new church year, a new liturgical season, and the beginning of the month-long countdown until Christmas.

Few people realize that with the beginning of Advent the church celebrates a new year, which includes a switch over to a new synoptic Gospel (this year it’s Matthew) that will guide the selections throughout the liturgical year. While Christmas far-too-often overshadows the Season of Advent in the social and even ecclesial imagination, those who do recognize the independence and importance of the Season of Advent nevertheless do not usually pay much attention to the word we so closely associate with this time of year: Advent.

I don’t think that the word Advent, at least as it is understood classically, is the best word for this season. And our readings this Sunday make that abundantly clear!

The origin of Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which literally means “arrival” or “coming.” And so, in one sense, it’s a logical term to describe the liturgical season in terms of the coming or arrival of Christ. This is, I presume, how it was adopted and intended. But the way in which adventus was used in the past should give us some pause and raise some questions about what it is we celebrate and why.

The word adventus was used in the Roman Empire when the emperor was officially welcomed into the city, usually after a military conquest or victory (typically when the Emperor would return to Rome after some military success). The emperor’s staff would send an envoy in advance and let the city, village, or town know that the victorious ruler was coming or would arrive soon — the “head’s up” was used to signal the loyal citizens to ready the welcome of the emperor, roll out the proverbial red carpet, and greet the leader appropriately with ceremony and pomp. They knew he was coming and they, we can presume, knew what to expect.

This arrival, this Advent, has classically meant two things in this original sense: (a) There was a celebratory, powerful, triumphant and, at times, violent dimension to the term Adventus, centered as it was on the military actions and royal reception of the Roman Emperor; and, (b) The use of the term Adventus always bore a sense of anticipation, expectation, and foresight – those in the city knew the emperor was coming – otherwise, they would not be able to roll out the “red carpet” and line the streets in a formal celebration.

While this might not seem like a big deal, I actually think that the term Advent does not serve us well when we begin to reflect on the profound truth of the type of coming or arrival we mark with this liturgical season.

It is really a historical and theological irony that the word “Advent” has come to describe the time that is dedicated for us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and ready ourselves for Christmas.

One the one hand: Many people were indeed expecting a messianic figure not unlike an emperor to come from God.  There was a sense in which a military and political leader was to arise from the Jewish people. But what the world got was a tiny, totally vulnerable baby. The baby would grow up, not to be a powerful political leader, but – in many ways – a simple man who had no “place to lay his head” and was constantly on the move. He and his followers were poor, itinerant, and the closest thing you could have to the opposite of military and political might. There was no one to “roll out the red carpet” for the coming of the Christ. There wasn’t even, as we are so familiar with recounting this time of year, “room at the Inn.”

On the other hand: There was utter surprise and confusion, which was hardly the well-planned and advanced notion of “Advent” that Adventus originally meant. While now we can look back at the Prophet Isaiah, for example, and understand that there were in fact sorts of “forerunners” to the Coming of Christ, the real truth was that few actually understood what Jesus was all about. Even his family and followers were confused and mislead – they were at times indignant, embarrassed, uncertain, doubtful, betraying, and abandoning… It’s very difficult to imagine a “true Adventus” in which the citizens of Rome did not fulfill the civic expectation to celebrate the return of their victorious leader.

What God had in store was something that nobody could really anticipate, nobody could be completely ready or plan for this in-coming of Christ, therefore there really could – in the most literal sense – not be a true Adventus, a true “Advent.” It should be obvious how “Advent” as a word could be seen as problematic, even if we don’t consciously associate the word with the politics and violence it originally meant.

I’m not saying we should “do away” with the word “Advent” (plus, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon), but I do think it might serve us well to think about the word, to think about the season, and to think about what it is we’re really supposed to celebrate during this time of year.

What we do celebrate is a coming, an arrival. But what kind?

I believe the word “invention” makes more sense. The word, “invention” actually makes more sense in terms of the Christmas event — not because it is “made up” as in “that story is quite an invention,” but in the literal origin of the word “invention” itself.

It has the same root as the word adventus in Latin (venire), but unlike adventus,the word inventus means “found” or “discovered.” The root of invention has to do with “coming upon” rather than fabricating. This is true with inventors too, think of the movie Back to the Future when Doc Brown slips and hits his head on the toilet and has that “a ha” moment… the Invention of the time machine is a spark of insight seemingly from nowhere.

Christ entered our world seemingly from a place of nowhere, certainly in a surprise unlike that which the people might ordinarily expect.  It’s like a golf ball hit toward your head and somebody shouting “IN COMING!”  It’s a surprise that shocks us into reality, a mystery out of the blue. The word invention taken apart, can also be understood as in-coming (or in the French, á venire). Interestingly enough, the in-coming, the á-venir in French, actually means future, which is precisely a description of the mystery of God that we presently await during the Season of Advent.

Our readings this Sunday on the First Week of Advent also support our thinking about this season less like an adventus and more in terms of an inventus or á-venir. 

Our First Reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (2:1-5), taken from the beginning of the text, bears a lot of the meaning latent in understanding what the Season of Advent is all about in terms of inventus.

In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”

But what is most interesting here is that this anticipation, this awareness of what is to come is not the adventus of a Roman Emperor or powerful figure. It is not the victorious coming of a violent God who has triumphed in the way human beings imagine. It is the coming or arrival of the end of such a reality.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

This is hardly reflective of the original meaning of adventus. No violence, no weapons, no military victory. Instead, we cannot imagine or conceptualize of what God has in store for us with the in-coming, the invention of Christ into our lives!

Likewise, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 24:37-44) unsettles the Roman meaning of adventus in yet another key way. Jesus warns us in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.

We do not know when the Lord will come. There is no red carpet, there is no planning, there is no trumpet blast alerting us to the arrival or coming of the Lord. In fact, the opposite is the case. People will simply be doing their normal, everyday activities:

In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.

Like the flood, the invention, the in-coming of Christ will be a surprise.

Some can and do read this passage with fright, but it seems rather hopeful and comforting if we listen carefully to the Gospel. We should not fear, but live our everyday lives according to the model Christ has laid out for us. Then we need not worry.

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation this week, Evangelii Gaudium, lays out a beautiful and challenging roadmap to live the Gospel today such that we can be read for the invention, the in-coming of Christ. If we just do what we are called to do in light of our baptism, we will have no fear. Those, meanwhile, who are waiting for an adventus, with triumph, grandeur, violence, and rapture, well… they will be disappointed. They’ve been missing what the season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is all about.

It is with great hope that we pause to consider what this season is all about. On the one hand we ready ourselves to celebrate what God has done, yet on the other hand we continue to await the future, the in-coming, the á venir, the in-vention of Christ in our lives!

Photo: Stock

What Does the Baptism of Jesus Really Mean?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus[As the Christmas Season comes to an end with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord this Sunday, I thought readers of DatingGod.org might be interested in a brief theological summary of what Jesus’s baptism by John is really all about. What follows in this post is a little technical — aka: “boring” for many — but it offers a succinct overview of some of the important themes surrounding the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus. This short reflection is part of a response I wrote in 2009 in a graduate course on the Sacrament of Baptism to the question of the theological meaning of the Lord’s Baptism. Pardon the many footnotes, hopefully they are instructive and helpful. Enjoy!]

The existence of narratives depicting or implying Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in all of the synoptic Gospels naturally raises questions concerning the purpose of such an act.[1]  In order to provide a sufficient answer to the question of “why” Jesus was baptized, it is necessary to explore the manner in which the baptismal practice of John compares to Jewish proselyte baptism.  Through the elucidation of John’s baptismal practice we are able to glean a clearer understanding of the potential sources of this action, thereby illuminating the significance of Jesus’s request for baptism from John.  Additionally, such an analysis provides an opportunity to examine the content and form of John’s baptism as it stands in relation to Jesus of Nazareth.  Finally, a very brief textual study of the New Testament will allow us to investigate the significance of this act for the New Testament authors, better enabling us to characterize the theological implications present in the baptismal narratives.

John’s Baptism in Contradistinction to Jewish Proselyte Baptism

Drawing on the reconstructed Q (Quelle) source, the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the writing of Josephus,[2] Adela Yarbro Collins outlines an overview of John’s baptism that allows us to focus on the particular practice in question.[3]  The origin of John’s baptism is widely disputed, allowing for several theories to be posited over the years.  The first theory is that it was modeled after the ritual ablutions of the Essene community at Qumran.  While there are clear similarities between the two forms of water bath, these characteristics are not unique.[4]  Having set aside the possibility of the Qumran community as source, next we consider the Jewish proselyte baptism.  This seems a more likely possibility if the practice of proselyte baptism existed prior to John’s ritual.  Contingent on the antecedent quality of Jewish proselyte baptism, John’s baptism could be viewed as a “reinterpretation” of the prior practice.[5]  However, there exists little certainty or consensus with regard to the dating of the origins of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Therefore, it is also possible that the ritual developed after John’s form of baptism.[6]

The likelihood that John’s baptism finds its origin in Jewish proselyte baptism is minimal, if not completely unlikely.  There are shared features, not unlike (the non-unique) similarities found between John’s baptism and the Qumran practice.  For instance, both John’s baptism and Jewish proselyte baptism were viewed as once-in-a-lifetime events.  Additionally, both required water immersion.  However, the purposes of these two practices are markedly different.  By virtue of its title, Jewish proselyte baptism was understood as an incorporative practice, whereas John’s emphasis focuses “upon prophetic expectations of the divine cleansing to be consummated by the work of the promised Messiah in a time of greatly heightened eschatological hope.”[7]  Additionally, there were elements of the Jewish proselyte water bath that were in no way emblematic of John’s practice.  For example, its association with male circumcision and purificatory form of baptism in preparation for sacrifice were both distinct from John’s practice.  John was not interested in making Gentiles into Jewish converts.  Reginald Fuller notes that, “John’s baptism was riveted to his eschatology in a way that these other baptismal practices were not.  John’s baptism was a singular conversion event carrying with it the promise of eschatological salvation.”[8]  There was a prophetic symbolism inherent in the baptism of John that pointed toward “God’s approach as purifier before the promised judgment and transformation.”[9]  As to the precise relationship between Jewish proselyte baptism and John’s baptism, Maxwell Johnson offers a possible correlation noting that it is “likely the case that both Jewish proselyte baptism and the baptism of John are parallel developments stemming from a common source or context.”[10]  Instead of John’s version following in likeness and format, thereby modeling an alleged precedent Jewish practice, Johnson’s theory suggests a concurrent genesis that better reflects the widespread shifts in society and culture of the time.[11]

The Content and Form of John’s Baptism in Relation to Jesus

Having examined the ways that John’s baptism is related to similar practices of the day, we can move to specifically identify the relationship between Jesus and the particular content and form of John’s baptism.  Aidan Kavanagh highlights the particularity and distinctiveness of John’s baptism, noting that, in addition to standing apart from other parallel washing rituals of the day, John’s baptizing of Jesus transforms the Baptizer’s practice into the “prototype” of subsequent Christian practice.[12]  According to Kavanagh, Jesus submitted himself to both the content and the form of John’s baptism.  The content, as evidenced by the Baptizer’s preaching, demanded “conversion of life as precondition as well as its continuing outcome” in addition to remission of sins.[13]  Jesus clearly did not need remission of sins, but his submission to the content – concomitant with John’s preaching – demonstrated Jesus’s newly established solidarity with those who were in need for conversion and the remission of sins.  This was made manifest in Jesus’s concurrent submission to the ritual form of the water bath.[14]  The significance of Jesus’s baptism by John is also expressed in the apparent acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological meaning present in the act.[15]  In the act of acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological implications of John’s baptism, we can see the relationship between this submission and the subsequent preaching of Jesus announcing the reign of God is at hand.

New Testament Views of Jesus’s Baptism vis-á-vis Christian Baptism

There are divergent opinions about the meaning of Jesus’s baptism by John even within the New Testament canon.[16]  As Collins keenly notes, the eschatological interpretation operating in the early Christian community varied significantly from that “eschatological schema” embodied in the message and action of John the Baptist.[17]  It is necessary to note the clear distinction between Jesus’s baptism by John and Christian baptism.  The New Testament authors will, time and again, highlight the uniqueness of Jesus’s baptism by John.[18]  What is also important to recall while considering the New Testament views of the importance of Jesus’s baptism by John is the post-paschal hermeneutic operating throughout the composition of the nascent Christian texts.  Certain meaning was naturally ascribed to the baptism of Jesus in retrospect.  Additionally, this baptism became paradigmatic for the first followers of Jesus and the early communities, even if the subsequent Christian baptism remained different from the original.  While we are certainly confident in dismissing any initiatory dimensions potentially ascribed to Jesus’s baptism by John in se, the early Christian communities – very early on – developed an understanding of baptism as an initiation ritual.  This theological view is found in writings including the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters and the Shepherd of Hermas.[19]  One can also see intimations of this theological perspective in Matthew 28:18-20.

Given the post-paschal interpretation of baptism by the New Testament authors, we can see emerge from the canon a theology of “baptism as death and resurrection.”  Here we see an adjudicated shift in theological signification from John’s baptism, which symbolized cleansing that inaugurated a new life of purity and sanctity, to a “Christian baptism” that denoted death that leads to new life.[20]  This idea of “new beginnings” or “new life” might even be understood as latent in the chronological location of Jesus’s baptism by John in the scriptural narratives in proximity to his mission.[21]  Connecting the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry closely to Christian baptism only emphasizes the view of “Christian initiation as new birth through water and the Holy Spirit.”[22]  Furthermore, the New Testament authors saw “Christian initiation as being united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.”[23]  It is these understandings of the meaning of Christian baptism that remain central to any elaborated or modified interpretations found elsewhere in the New Testament canon and the early Christian communities.[24]

Photo: Stock
NOTES:


            [1] The respective versions can be found at: Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17 and Luke 3:21-22.  For more on these passages, see John Donahue and Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 59-70; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 61-65; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 68-72; and Joel Marcus, “Jesus’ Baptismal Vision,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 512-521.

It should be noted that the Gospel of John does not make any mention of Jesus being baptized by John.  Instead, the ministries of Jesus and John are depicted as concurrently taking place.  For more on the significance of this, see Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, rev. ed. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 17-23.  Adela Yarbro Collins, however, makes a generalized suggestion through the inclusion of John with the synoptics that the Fourth Gospel also includes a narration of Jesus’s baptism (see p. 35 of n.3 source below).  See John 3:22-23.

            [2] See Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.  For a critical English translation, see Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 30-650.

            [3] Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), esp. 35-39.

            [4] This is first explicated by Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 40-41; and elaborated by Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 7-9.

            [5] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41.

            [6] See Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41-46; and Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1978), 6-11.

            [7] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 11; and Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 46-47.  Kavanagh further explains: “John’s baptism of repentance is preparatory for messianic work.  It is not a means for making gentiles Jews, as was proselyte baptism, nor is it wholly bound by the bathing ablutions of the Essene ascetics or Qumran” (10).

            [8] Reginald Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” in Made Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate, ed. Aidan Kavanagh (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 9.

            [9] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [10] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 10.  This is also explored in Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” 8-9.

            [11] This is perhaps best captured in the seeming reliance of both types of baptism on the ritual washings of Leviticus.  For more see Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 56-57.

            [12] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 10.

            [13] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [14] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [15] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [16] It is clear that very early on there existed a set of teachings on baptism in the New Testament.  For more on the manifestations of this theology, see Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11-12.

            [17] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 52.

            [18] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 13.

            [19] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 53.

            [20] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 54.

            [21] Here I am drawing on the work of Johnson who notes, in Luke for example, that Jesus’s baptism by John is understood as a beginning.  This interpretation is further supported in the book of the Acts, where we read that Jesus’s mission of spreading the message of the reign of God and performing the healing works took place “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced” (see Acts 10:36-38).  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 12-16.

            [22] John 3:5ff and Titus 3:5: see Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [23] Romans 6:3-11: Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [24] Some of the other interpretation of Christian initiation in the New Testament include: Forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), putting off the old self and putting on the new, i.e. being clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27, Col 3:9-10), enlightenment (Heb 6:4 & 10:32, 1 Pet 2:9), being anointed and or sealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:21-22, 1 John 2:20), being sealed or marked as belonging to God and God’s people (2 Cor 1:21-22, Eph 1:13-14, Rev 7:3) and so on.  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 37ff.

The Exegesis of God

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

300px-Nativity_tree2011Today’s Gospel, which is something of a Christmas repeat from the Christmas Mass During the Day (that’s right, in case you didn’t realize this, there are in fact four different sets of reading for Christmas… it’s kind of a big deal!). It is the famous “prologue” of the Gospel according to John. It’s opening lines are some of the most famous lines in all of history: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And while this is followed most closely by what is likely the second most famous line from the Gospel of John “And the Word became flesh,” I’m not convinced that this is the most important part of this Gospel passage.

Not that every part of the prologue isn’t important, quite the opposite, but the ending of this prologue, that which bridges this opening of the Gospel with the body of the text, is way too often overlooked. I’m talking about the very end, these lines:

No one has ever seen God.
The only-begotten Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

If you’re not paying attention, you can miss it. And most of us, I would bet (myself included), don’t pay nearly enough attention to what is actually proclaimed in the Gospel. We usually hear something we recognize, if only vaguely, and then our eyes glaze over and we zone out. Right? It’s too difficult to stand in one place, listen, and concentrate for five whole minutes. We’ve all been there before!

But what is overlooked here is one of the most beautiful things in the Gospel, and it’s central to our faith as Christians and why we get this repeated (in case you missed it on Christmas day proper) during the Christmas octave in which we still find ourselves.

The author of the Gospel of John is saying here that prior to the Incarnation, prior to Christmas morning when God became one like us, born in the flesh as a human being like you and me, no one, no one had ever seen God. Humanity had known God, had — by virtue of our existence, through nature, in prayer, in divine revelation and scripture — been in relationship with God; but no one had ever seen God. That changes with the Incarnation.

The word “revealed,” as in “Jesus Christ has revealed God,” is from the Greek word that gives us exegesis (ἐξήγησις). This is more than an image or a sign of God, but is the very expression (pressing-out), the very “making real,” the very unfolding, explaining, understanding, presentation, true presence, concretization, self-disclosure, and so on, of God.

I once had a christology professor who is probably the only person I know who possibly loves John 1:18 more than I do, who liked to say that a paraphrase for this final line of the prologue is to ask and respond:

Want to know what God is like? 
Look at the son! Look at Jesus Christ — what he does, what he says, how he lives — and you will know how God acts, thinks, and desires!

We believe that God has indeed entered the world as one like us but, even more, as the end of John’s prologue affirms, we believe that God has fully revealed (auto-exegesis) God’s self in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call The Christ.

Christmas is more than a celebration of a newborn, it is the celebration of the very exegesis of God.

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Christmas Has Only Just Begun!

Posted in Huffington Post, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 25, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

christmas-nativityThis reflection originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Christmas Eve 2012.

Christmas is much more than a one-day event.

While many people are familiar with the multi-week length of liturgical seasons throughout the Christian calendar — Ordinary Time, Advent and Lent, for example — few realize that Christmas is not just the celebration of the Nativity on Dec. 25 each year. Christmas is a full liturgical season that spans from Christmas Eve through Epiphany and ends, at least in the Roman Catholic Church, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 13 this year).

During the Christmas Season (sometimes called “Christmastide”) several other important feast days are celebrated, including the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 30 this year), the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Jan. 6 this year), and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In some churches, the celebration of the Christmas season can extend to as late as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2, which brings the season to a full 40 days! Each of these moments marks an important event in the Christian narrative and in the life of the church.

It is interesting that our consumer culture has seen an opportunity to extend Christmas with an exceptionally early start to the marketing of Christmas-related products, decorations, candy and music. However, this move — “beginning Christmas” as early as October — is both redundant and a reversal of the proper season. Christmas is already long enough, but it requires that we celebrate the patient yet attentive waiting of the Advent Season first.

For those who think Christmas is anticlimactic after the months of shopping, prepping and holiday anxiety, the real good news of Christmas extends beyond the birth of the Savior to include an appropriately joyful and reflective season dedicated to pondering these mysteries.

On Dec. 21, 1962 the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner wrote a guest editorial in the weekly paper, Die Zeit, in which he offered some reflections on the celebration of Christmas and the season that bears its name. After observing that Christmas can oftentimes feel like a disappointment after such cultural buildup, Rahner wrote:

Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.

He continued:

The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.

As Dec. 25 comes and goes, and the temptation to begin taking down the Christmas decorations quickly arises, consider the possibility of taking this year’s celebration of Christmas as an opportunity for something different.

Whereas in Christmases of the past, the day came and went amid gift giving, caroling and holiday parties, each rushed to be included before December’s end, perhaps this year might be the occasion to slow down and ponder more quietly that which stands in the background of this otherwise hectic time of year; what Rahner calls “the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.”

This year, especially in light of our all-too-painful awareness of violence and suffering in our world, time set aside to welcome the Prince of Peace is greatly needed.

May the remaining days of Christmas be a time of peace, prayer and joy, that what began on Christmas Eve may carry you through into a new calendar year more aware of the continued presence of the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Merry Christmas … still!

Photo: Stock

O Root of Jesse: The God Who Comes From Within

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

community-helping-handsO Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

There is a line that is often attributed to St. Augustine and that others, like St. Bonaventure, later appropriated and paraphrased. It reflects the intimacy and immanence of God: “God is closer to you than you are to yourself.” This year, while reflecting on today’s O Antiphon, O Root of Jesse, I thought of this line because of the way in which the coming of God as emmanuel is anticipated here as coming from within. It is not an utterly transcendent God that comes from outside, as if beaming down from outer space, but a God who comes from within the family of the People of Israel, from within the limitations of human form, from within the time and space of our existence in creation.

This is partly what is conveyed in the reference to the messiah’s coming from the lineage of King David’s father, Jesse. Jesus arrives as a member of that family tree (hence the importance of the ‘boring’ genealogies in Matthew and Luke) and it should indeed give us pause about how we view our families and the importance of that connection with our past, present, and future lineage. Like all of humanity, God enters our world as part of a particular line of human persons with their own diverse histories, blessings, and sinful pasts. God knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be part of a family.

Yet, it is not just those who follow in the line of David that can appreciate that Jesus was born in that line, for the broader human family is what we celebrate on Christmas. Because God enters the world as one like us, it was necessary for there to be a particular family line into which Christ would be born, but it is the fact that God becomes human and, therefore, part of the human family that is so much more significant than any particular clan to which the infant Jesus would be associated.

In light of this familial dimension to the Incarnation and the coming of Christ, I wonder how we might understand the last line of the antiphon: “let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Superficially, it almost appears as though we are praying that God doesn’t get stuck in traffic or become distracted by something else or disinterested for some reason. Yet, there is a profound implication that this line bears when we put the whole familial observation in perspective.

Christ continues to come into our world today in many and varied ways, albeit not in quite the same way as that day in Bethlehem. The way that Christ comes into our world to aid us, however, is through the other members of the body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila so brilliantly said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

God is only ever prevented from coming to the aid of humankind by the inaction or disinterest of other human persons. This antiphon reminds us of our familial bond to God in Christ through the Incarnation, but it should also remind us of our role in salvation history to care for one another as Jesus cared for those he encountered during his earthly lifetime.

When we pray for the Root of Jesse to come, we are praying that the Spirit of God take root in our heart so that we can be instruments of God’s peace in this world, allowing God to indeed come to the aid of our brothers and sisters. But it only happens through us. It only happens from the God who comes from within: within human history and within our hearts.

Photo: Stock
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